To Be Verb or Not To Be Verb

In the fall of 1990 (gosh that dates me) I attended one of my first college creative writing courses.  I had graduated from high school in ’89, and was known as a writer of horror fiction in my small rural school.  Suddenly I found myself in a bigger pond with bigger fish and felt completely intimidated.  I remember thinking that I would finally learn some fantastic writing skills sitting under the guru of professorship, but that one class still haunts my writing style to this day.

This professor (who will remain nameless) probably meant well by teaching us the following method to writing good fiction: Quit using “to be” verbs.  Most people use these words in common speech; words like “was” and “were” and “is” and “are”.  He said that if one removed the “to be” verbs from writing, that writer would force themselves to write more powerful description and verbiage.

For example, suppose we are to describe a small scene for our reader like so:

Herbert was happy.  He had finally found love in the right place.  However, he was not ready for what it would cost him in bank debt.

It would therefore be re-written like this:

Herbert’s face lit up with a rosy hue.  He discovered love hiding in plain sight.  However, his bank debt soon sucked the love right out of him.

For years I wrote this way, so much that I became very adept at removing all trace of “to be” verbs from my writing.  My fingers flew over the keyboard with glee knowing that I had finally reached some kind of beautiful symmetry of words and ideas.  Little did I know that I had completely sapped all the life out of my voice.  Voice is important, and it is what drives a writer to tell the tale in such a way that is more creative than simply removing the “to be” verbs.

I think that removing these pesky verbs taught me something that I only learned three years ago, and that is we should not fall to some method to make us better writers, but use these methods to help us see where we are lacking.  I did not really find my voice until my second self-published novel.  I wrote a novella called “Taking Down the Ladder” which is devoid of one “to be” verb, but I look back on that book and think about all the fun I could have had with the language if I wasn’t so concerned with breaking my one rule.

Now I break all the rules.  My second novel was an experiment to see if I could write on a 6th grade reading level and I succeeded.  The biggest fans of The Transgression Box are pre-teens and teenagers.  This was my target audience, and I consider that a pretty good success even though I only sold 68 copies of the printed edition.  My current novel is yet another departure from the style of The Transgression Box.  People who have read both novels have spoken to me about the differences in voice and how drastically different they seem.  I simply chalk it up to experimentation and growth as a writer.

The important thing is not to tie yourself down to one method of writing.  Experiment with many different methods.  I think I may have finally found my voice with the current novel I am writing, but who knows, I may change that in a few years.  So keep working, keep experimenting, and above all keep writing!

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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